New Classical Tracks: Benjamin Grosvenor dives into the music of Franz Liszt
Benjamin Grosvenor Liszt (Decca Classics)
"When this first hit, I decided not to play the piano for a month and a half just because I'd never done that before. And I wanted to see what it was like. I read and watched Netflix and enjoyed time in my garden. And at some point I realized that I needed to go back to the piano again."
That's British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, talking about what he learned about himself during the global pandemic. Once he did return to the piano, he organized a mini-chamber music festival with his neighbor, and he finished his latest recording.
Your latest recording celebrates the great romantic pianist and composer Franz Liszt. And I know you have a personal connection to this composer, and it relates to your grandfather. How did he inspire you to enjoy the music of Liszt?
"Well, my grandfather was an amateur pianist. He wanted to be a concert pianist when he was a child, but sadly didn't have the parental support and became an accountant. But he passed on music to my mother, who became a music and piano teacher, and she then taught me to play. And we'd go into London to hear people like Stephen Hough, and Evgeny Kissin play. And he introduced me to some wonderful recordings and wonderful music. And perhaps two of the first composers I became exposed, exposed to were Chopin and Liszt.
And I mean, he passed away at the beginning of last year. So I thought sort of to mark, the bizarre year that had happened, it might be a nice idea to record a CD of Liszt as a tribute to him, but also sort of a tribute through him, my my own musical lineage. And the Liszt is sort of the ultimate composer in that respect. I mean, every modern pianist, we sort of look back to him. He had such a great influence on everything that followed."
The Sonata in B Minor is the centerpiece of this recording, what makes it such a masterwork?
"It's a piece of immense drama and lyricism and emotional power. It's just a hugely powerful journey with these amazing contrasts between, I, I guess, the diabolical and the divine in a way. There's a kind of devilish character that always comes back among these moments of spirituality. It's a sort of wild ride, this piece. It takes you in so many different places through the span of half an hour."
Liszt was certainly a showman when it came to performing in particular, and he loved to dazzle the audience and there is an opportunity for you to do the same on this recording with his Fantasy on Bellini's Norma. Tell me what makes this piece so much fun to play?
"He had this remarkable gift of taking an opera, you know music of two hours, three hours, and then summarizing it into 15 minutes, but by doing so, creating his own incredibly compelling narrative and musical tapestry. And I think Norma is one of the finest examples of that. And that's what makes it such a joy to play. I mean, there's so much to explore in that and so many colors to draw out."
You close out the recording with a charming encore of Ave Maria and it's Liszt's transcription of Schubert's familiar work. Why was this the best way to wrap up the recording?
"It was actually the request for my grandfather to have he wanted this played at his funeral, which couldn't happen because of the lockdown. So, I mean, that's why it's there. But at the same time, it makes a perfect encore after Norma, which is such a big-boned piece. And it's a piece that is much harder than it sounds. Through the whole piece, you have to navigate this three-handed effect where the right and left hand have accompaniment at the same time as both of them playing the tune in the middle. And to do that and to invest it with color and balance and shape is is challenging."
I think playing such a variety of Liszt you just become aware of the of the extraordinary contrast that the man was capable of. You know, he's someone who you can endlessly explore."
To hear the rest of my conversation, click on the extended interview above, or download the extended podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
Benjamin Grosvenor Liszt (Norway House)
Benjamin Grosvenor (official site)
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